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Corporations Are Patenting Human Genes and Tissues -- Here's Why That's Terrifying

A medical ethicist explains the dark implications of corporate medical patents and the nightmarish scenario of our medical-industrial complex.

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So Chakrabarty and General Electric sued and the patent office decided to defer to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided that, yes, living things can be patented, which is interesting because Chakrabarty insisted he was shocked by the ruling. He said that he fully expected he had made his case, but he was surprised they decided to more broadly permit the patenting of living things.

But now it's being applied to things where the contribution of the researcher is nowhere near so extensive. So, of course, genetic sequences found in our body are being patented. Medically important animals -- like Harvard's OncoMouse which is guaranteed to get cancer -- are being patented. And so these products of nature, including products of our bodies, being patented has created huge problems for us.

BJ: In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman, was being treated for cervical cancer without success at John Hopkins University. Without Henrietta's or her family's knowledge, John Hopkins University researcher Dr. George Gey obtained a sample of her tumor from her doctors, which eventually led to his creation of an immortalized cell line used in the development of the polio vaccine as well as drugs for numerous other diseases. It also generated millions of dollars in profits around the world, yet the Lacks family was never compensated, nor did they even have health insurance at the time. How was this case a harbinger for what would follow in the context of patient rights in regard to medical patents?

HW: I actually met with the Lacks family in the mid-1990s. I wrote about her case and I think there are some things that have been promulgated that are not exactly true. It's true the family didn't have any health insurance and weren't compensated. But they never evinced concern about being paid. I think that was a focus that had been imposed later by people who I think had the best intentions in the world. Some of the people who wrote about them were very concerned they weren't paid.

But the Lacks family expressed consistently that their mother had been a medical benefactor and no one knew this. Her name had been changed in the accounts so that nobody knew who she was. They were very upset about the autonomy.

And they didn't like having been lied to of course.

BJ: You mention in the book the paternalistic nature that Dr. Gey had taken. The excuse he'd used was that he changed her name to protect her, but they didn't really accept that.

HW: Her husband thought they didn't want the world to know that this is a black lady helping science. And that seemed to be the prevailing attitude in the family. They resented that.

BJ: What's the positive impact, however, of this cell line having never been patented?

HW: So what happened to Henrietta Lacks was an abuse of her and her family. But the dissemination of her cells very cheaply, not free but very cheaply, made a lot of medical advances possible. The reason they weren't patented was this was before 1980 and it wasn't legally possible. It also wasn't part of the medical culture then. Medicine was being practiced by people in university settings. They had different motivations, not money.

Now it's impossible to speculate about exactly what would've happened. But had her cells been patentable, had this happened after 1980, there's a good chance that certainly recognizing their value, Dr. Gey or John Hopkins or some other researcher would've taken a patent out on it and then they would've, as is usual, only licensed them to the researchers and universities that would have paid them a hefty fee. Or perhaps not licensed them at all.

 
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